Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 4: October 1939

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Happy Valentine’s Day!

It occurs to me as I start this fourth episode on my vacation in the Golden Age that I haven’t spoken much about my method, which over the course of the first three episodes, has fallen into a kind of pleasant routine. It’s pretty simple: one issue a week, and each day, I try to get in 25 pages, often at lunchtime and just before turning in for the night. I read from cover to cover and I try very hard not to skip around. I jot down some notes along the way, nothing lengthy or sophisticated, just points that I think will be interesting to mention, or passages that seem particularly quotable. And then Sunday afternoon, when my little boy is down for his nap, I settle down to write the episode. I mention all of this because a particularly busy schedule this week cast most of that aside. I’d only finished about half of the October issue by the weekend, and I crammed in the other half yesterday and today.

The cover of the October issue is a gorgeous Rogers job that at first glance almost looks like something that might have been done by computer–if it wasn’t 1939. Kimball Kinnison in his gray uniform appears sharply in front of his spacecraft, a kind of stoic/heroic look on his face. Gladney’s cover on the July ’39 issue was impressive in its abstraction, but for sheer technique, this Rogers cover is better.

Campbell’s editorial this fine October is an open “Invitation” for contributors to send science articles to Astounding. Several of the articles that had recently appeared went on to appear in more learned journals and Campbell is clearly proud of this (as he should be in the case of de Camp’s “Design for Life”). He knows what he is looking for, too:

Particularly, I am interested in metallurgy, in biochemistry, and in the physical chemistry of super-molecules such as are involved in plastics.

The October 1939 issue contains 6 pieces of fiction: a serial, a novelette, and 4 short stories. The serial, of course, is part 1 of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “Gray Lensman” which Campbell has been plugging for months, and for which he made extra room in this (and the three subsequent issues) by cutting other fiction content. The entire novel is purported to be 100,000 words and “one of the longest science fiction novels ever written.” By that, I think Campbell means ever published.

I struggled with whether I should hold out to report on “Gray Lensman” until after completing the January 1940 issue, when I could report on the novel in its entirety. I decided that my purpose here is to report on my reactions to the issues as I read them and not necessarily on the complete pieces. That said, I still have quite a bit to discuss about part 1 of “Gray Lensman”.

First, let me say that prior to reading this story, I’d read one other piece by Doc Smith, Skylark of Space, which according to my records, I finished reading back on January 30, 2000. I have not read Triplanetary nor have I read Galactic Patrol, both of which, I understand, precede “Gray Lensman”. I was grateful, therefore, to find that Smith included a prologue, written from the perspective of an historian which does a good job of bringing a reader up to date on the context for the adventures in the current piece.

One thing I found amusing right off the bat: take a look at that Rogers cover above and note that the title of the story, in all caps is spelled out there on the bottom as “GREY LENSMAN”. However, in the contents and throughout the rest of the issue, the title is spelled “Gray Lensman”. I seem to recall that grey is the British spelling of the word, and “Gray” the American spelling. I imagine that this is a point of amusement for long-time fans and old-timers, but I wonder how many people noticed this inconsistency at the time. Maybe I will find out in future letter columns.

I notice, too, that this must be from where Boskone and Arisia, two of Boston’s annual science fiction conventions, take their names. (I’d always assumed the former was simply a play on Boston-Con.)

The scope of the story is magnificent and I think this was Smith’s specialty. But what really struck me about this story as a reader in 2011 who was a kid in the mid-1970s was the perhaps unforeseen influence it was to have nearly four decades later. The “mental training” that Kinnison receives on Arisia predates George Lucas’ “Force” by four decades. In fact, the term “Jedi” and “Gray Lensman” could be synonyms based on the descriptions that Smith provides. (Then too, some of the “mental power” aspect of “Gray Lensman” finds its way into Asimov’s Second Foundation and probably many other pieces that I haven’t read.) I immediately identified the villain Helmuth with Darth Vader (and Vader’s trademark “helmet”); and I identified Eichlan as the Emporer with his Death Star-like base. Of course, I’ve got this all backwards. Smith was there long before Lucas, but having read one-forth of the story so far, I am convinced that Lucas borrowed liberally from Smith. It made me wonder: could “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” refer not to the time and place in which the event of Star Wars take place, but instead, to the time and place from which borrowed?

There are some signs of what I understand was to become typical of the Campbell archetype–that humans were the dominating species in the universe–and none more clear than perhaps this passage:

 

Man was certainly as good as the pirates; probably better on the basis of past performance. Of all the races of the Galaxy, man had always taken the initiative, had always been the leader and commander. And, with the exception of the Arisians, man had the best brain in the Galaxy.

The fact that there was an exception goes only to show that Campbell was still early in his career as an editor. When Asimov tried it a few years later, he had to give up on aliens entirely, which is why they are absent in the Foundation series.

It seemed to me that the power source of Kinnison’s spacecraft was an early description of an antimatter drive. Of course, it wasn’t called that, but that’s how it read and it was rather impressive.

But there were also things that bothered me about the story. Kinnison’s character is too heroic and too self-aware of it. As great a work as this was considered in its time, science fiction writers today could never get away with a character like Kinnison in anything other than farce. He is, for all intents and purposes, Superman incarnate. He has the best of everything, everyone bows to his ideas, be they ranking officers or swooning women. There are not (as of yet) hints of any flaw in his character and at times this made for difficult reading.

That said, while part 1 was not my favorite piece in the issue, I enjoyed reading it and I even thought that it modestly lived up to Campbell’s plugging of it. When I first opened the issue and turned to the first page of the story, I felt the same kind of excitement that I feel when I go to see a movie that I’ve been wanting to see for a really long time–one that everyone is talking about as a “must see”–with the result that I was only slightly disappointed.

Next up was a short story by John Berryman called “Space Rating”. This was the story of a student spaceship pilot locked in a kind of ego-battle with one of his aging instructors. When they are sent out for routine mission, Lt. Riggs, the student, is asked by senior officers to be the check pilot for Major Hawley, the instructor whose license is up for review. It is to be done in secret, of course. The rest of the story is of the one-upmanship that goes on between student and teacher during the mission, with teacher making a critical error at some point, one which, if reported by student, could effectively end his piloting career. I saw the ending coming a mile away on this one, I’m afraid, although I wasn’t exactly sure how Berryman would decide to carry it out. In the end, Riggs reports the error but says that in his opinion it was a fluke, perhaps due to illness and that it wouldn’t happen again. Of course, we learn that the “mistake” by Hawley was on purpose to test out the ethics of his student.

Despite that, it was a fun read, and was only mildly pulpish in the writing. I was particularly fond of the theme, since more than a decade ago, I went through flight training to get my private pilot’s license and some of the skill and competitiveness that showed up in the story certainly existed during my own training. I should also point out that this is the first story that I’ve come across so far that made use of the word “computer”. However, the word was used in the context of a person who computes. We’re still half a decade or so before the first analog computers come into being.

Berryman’s piece was followed up by the only novelette in the issue, “A Question of Salvage” by Malcolm Jameson. This was the first Jameson story I’d ever read. I learned from my trusted sources that Jameson was a friend of Heinlein. In this piece, Sam Truman is a down-on-his-luck mate on a salvage ship. He’s been conned out of other commissions and jobs, often by the same fellow, his nemesis, Eric Varms. In some sense this is a revenge story, but it contains some good ethical drama, despite its imagined gravity storms in space. When these storms strike, ships can become disabled. Tugs, like Truman’s ship will go out and rescue them, but only if they are willing to pay hefty fees. Those that can’t pay simply don’t get rescued. Truman has a conscience of course, and that adds to the drama.

This was a long story but it read fairly quickly and was well-paced. I think it was a little heavy-handed in its moral. The story did everything but come out an say it. Then, too, as I said, it was a revenge piece and in the final scene we see Varms cuffed and led away. It seems to me the story would have worked better if the “treasure” that Varms left behind (along with the crew) was properly claimed by Truman, but that Varms was allowed to get away. Instead, Jameson had to give Truman both the treasure and the moral victory.

And now let me take a moment to talk briefly about “screens.” Screens, of course, are shields that protect a spaceship and they were apparently all the rage in 1939. “Gray Lensman” had complicated battle scenes in which the layering of “screens” around the ship was like some complex chess move, predicting enemy firing patterns in advance, somehow. Screens have shown up in other stories as well, and they also showed up in Jameson’s piece. As I go through issues a week at a time, it is interesting to see the trends that pass through, as well as what catches on and what doesn’t.

Harry Walton’s “Episode on Dhee Minor” was, in my opinion, the weakest piece in the issue. It was a simple adventure story about a human and alien (in the form of a kind of plant that can transfer its thoughts and memories from one generation to the next) defending themselves against some escaped convicts. No surprises here, and aside from the pseudo-immortality granted to these alien plants–there was really nothing new. Not a terrible story, just a run-of-the-mill piece that you might expect to find in one of the lesser magazines of the time.

There were two more short pieces in the issue, the first of which was Lee Gregor’s (a.k.a. Milton A. Rothman) “Shawn’s Sword”. It was about a simple fellow, who was good with his hands and spend his off-time onboard a spaceship making a sword with which to fight some imagined dragon–and of course, the rest of the crew makes fun of him. We find that the sword has been made in part with some of the special crystals they are mining and that serves to help him in the end when being attacked by dragon-like aliens. Despite being a simple s.f. piece, I would rate this story higher than Walton’s because the character in the story, Arthur Shawn, is well-drawn and as a reader, I felt sympathy for him.  (I felt nothing for the characters in Walton’s piece.)

The final piece of fiction in the October issue was also the shortest (at a mere 6 pages) and in my opinion, the best piece and one of the best pieces I have read so far in this vacation. (It’s nice to be able to naturally save the best for last.) The story was “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam. As far as I can tell, this was his first published science fiction and it was absolutely stunning. The story takes place in a far, far future Earth where only robots survive, robots that were originally created by man to kill other men. All of mankind is gone–killed by the robots of course, and the last three remaining spend the brief story pondering their nature, their intrinsic desire to kill, and their ultimate decay.

This is the first piece of fiction I’ve come across that has effected me emotionally in an outward way.  As the narrator, robot X-120 is taking a walk alone, away from his two friends, he is pondering his own ultimate fate:

He did not wish to go back to L-1716, not just yet. The maimed robot was always sad. The rust was eating into him, too. Soon he would be like G-3a. Soon the two of them would be gone. Then he would be the last. An icy surge of fear stole over him. He did not want to be left alone.

I felt for that poor robot at that moment more than I felt for any character I’d read so far. But then it got even better, took it up an extra notch, as X-120 continues his quest:

He went on and on, and out of long habit he went furtively. Soon he came to an ivy-covered wall. Beyond this were the ruins of a great stone house. He stopped at what had once been a garden. Near a broken fountain he found what he had been seeking, a little marble statue of a child, weathered and discolored. Here, unknown to his companions, he had been coming for countless years. There was something about this little sculpture that fascinated him. And he had been half ashamed of that fascination.

The image that passage calls to mind is truly remarkable, and painfully sad. X-120 tries to build another statue from the clay, but his claw were designed for killing, not creating. And yet, Kelleam does a good job of not becoming overly sentimental in the piece. At the end, when both of his friends are dead and there is something wrong with him, too, X-120 confronts the statue once again–and this time, he destroys it. It’s what he was designed to do. He then finds himself lost, tipped over, with the light flickering out, dead, and buried beneath the snow.

This is the kind of gem of a story I hoped to find from time-to-time as I make my way on this vacation. This is what makes it all worthwhile. This story could have been written today and would have been remarkable. I can’t imagine that it didn’t influence other writers of the time. Certainly, Isaac Asimov has to have read this piece and it had to have influenced his later robot stories. Even the recent animated feature, Wall-E owes some debt to this piece. Thought it must be nearly impossible to find now, I highly recommend it. It is the type of story I will return to again at regular intervals and reread with equal pleasure.

There were two nonfiction articles in this issue. The first was an interesting one by Harold A. Lower called “Hunting Big Game” about the search for supernovas. The most interesting part of the piece, aside from the historical perspective of where cosmology stood in 1939, was the elliptical references to the massive gravity of neutron stars and the red shifting of light coming from those stars. Lower was implying, without outright saying it, the possibility of black holes.

The other piece, by Willy Ley was called “Earth’s Second Moon” about the possibility of Earth having more than one satellite. He covers quite a bit of lunar history as provides some details on asteroids. Not bad, but I didn’t enjoy this one as much as his last one on “Space War”.

Here is the results for the Analytical Laboratory for the August 1939 issue. As a reminder, my ranking follows in parentheses:

  1. Luck of Ignatz by Lester del Rey (1)
  2. Life-Line by Robert Heinlein (3)
  3. The Blue Giraffe by L. Sprague de Camp (2)
  4. Stowaway by Nelson S. Bond (6)
  5. Heavy Planet by Lee Gregor (4)

I must admit that I was pleased with my sagacity in estimating the Frederick Engelhardt serial to be below par. It didn’t even make the top 5 in the AnLab, and if I may quote from one letter that appears in our present issue:

“General Swamp, C.I.C.”: the C.I.C. ought to stand for Certainly Is Corny. After apologizing to Fred Engelhardt, I would like to say that this story is the worst piece of idiocy ever to disgrace our magazine.

Well, I’m not going to gloat here. Some stories work and some stories don’t, and such is the life of a writer. Don’t I know it!

Here are my ratings for the October 1939 issue:

  1. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam
  2. A Question of Salvage by Malcolm Jameson
  3. Gray Lensman (Part 1) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  4. Space Rating by John Berryman
  5. Shawn’s Sword by Lee Gregor
  6. Episode on Dhee Minor by Harry Walton

The letters column was interesting to read, as always, and had also returned to the back of the issue so that it was the last thing that I read. In fact, the last letter on the last page of the issue is written in care of the British Interplanetary Society and addresses some points about the number of crew it would take to pilot an interplanetary spacecraft. But the really interesting thing to me was that it was signed by one Arthur C. Clarke.

The November issue has, of course, the next installment of “Gray Lensman”, and also stories by del Rey, and Heinlein. And a new article by de Camp.

See you here next week.

15 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 4: October 1939

  1. “Rust” is the best story in this issue (and is also graced with the best illustration in that issue as well), but it didn’t come out of nowhere. “Rust” is squarely in the tradition of Campbell’s elegiac Don A. Stuart stories (the Stuart of “Twilight” and “Forgetfullness” rather than “Who Goes There?”).

    There is as well a direct antacedent to “Rust”. A year before Robert Moore Williams had a story in the Sept. 1938 ASF titled “Robots Return” – which also features three robots wandering in the ruins of Earth. “Return” shares the same bleak mood of loss as in “Rust”, even if Moore’s robots were in a lot better shape than Kelleam’s.

    If you want to compare the yarns, Moore’s story was included in the 1946 anthology “Adventures in Time and Space”, of which some edition should be available in some public library in the D.C. area.

    1. Mark is that the Healy anthology you are referring to, because if so, I own a copy and can look up the other story?

      I’ve read Campbell/Stuart’s WHO GOES THERE? but haven’t read “Twilight” or “Forgetfullness”. I might have them in a collection somewhere. The human emotion in Kelleam’s robots made me think of descendants of that story, namely Asimov’s “Robbie” (vt. Pohl’s awful title, “Strange Playfellow”), and of course as I mentioned “The Bicentennial Man”.

      I should have made more mention of the illustration, which I really liked (I can’t recall who did it, I don’t have that issue in front of me at the moment). I haven’t been talking about interior illustrations much, but I’m trying to squeeze a lot into 3,000 words and can’t always get everything. I’ll look up the Williams story this evening. Thanks for the information.

      It’a always good to know that my judgment of these things aren’t off the wall. I felt a little awkward writing that the Smith story fell into 3rd place in my book, knowing how revered he was at the time, and RUST was the last story in the issue, buried between the two science articles.

      Someday, you will have to explain to me just how you know all of this incredible background detail. It is very impressive! Between you and Barry Malzberg, I feel like I’ve got a solid set of genre historians to fall back on. :-)

  2. Yup – It’s that Healy & McComas anthology which collects “Robots Return”.

    There is no reason to feel apologetic about not putting “Doc” Smith in first place on your AnLab submission. We don’t need to submit to the opinions of all the 13 year old boys were crazy in love with Kimball, Worsel and Tregonsee back in 1939. Frankly, I would rather pound sand than go through the Lensmen novels again (when I was 15, I trudged through the first five books and made it as far as two chapters into “Children of the Lens” before I just couldn’t take any more).

    I really hope you see this through to the end, since you have become the sin-eater of the Golden Age. Dear God, you are voluntarily reading the likes of “Episode on Dhee Minor” and “Gen. Swamp C.I.C” so the rest of us don’t have to.

    1. I really thought that “Episode on Dhee Minor” really belonged in a different magazines–Amazing Stories, maybe. Apparently, however, not all of the tally on General Swamp was in yet in the October issue. It is ranked in the An Lab in November and I’ll have more to say on that Sunday evening. :-)

  3. Just discovered your “vacation” and have been catching up. It’s been fascinating so far…

    If anyone is looking for a way to read “Rust,” it’s in the Asimov/Greenberg anthology: The Great SF Stories: 1939. I assume a used copy wouldn’t be hard to find, and there’s lots of other good stuff in it, including “Life-Line”, “The Blue Giraffe”, “Black Destroyer”, and others from that year’s Astounding run.

    1. Glad you are enjoying it, Scott. Yeah, a few other people pointed me tot he Asimov/Greenberg anthology. I’m just surprised I hadn’t heard more about “Rust” or Kelleam before this.

  4. I got curious and looked it up, and according to ISFDB, Kelleam published only 6 short stories (between 1939 and 1962) and four novels (between 1956 and 1966), so it’s not surprising that he’s somewhat forgotten. Two of the stories are in the May 1940 and April 1942 issues of Astounding, so it’ll be interesting to see if the quality bears comparison with “Rust.”

    1. As Barry Malzberg has said, he is one of those writers with which science fiction is too frequently gifted: he produces a single brilliant story and then falls silent. It wil be interesting to read the others. I can only hope they are as good as RUST.

  5. Back in the 70’s, when I was a teenager with a ravenous thirst for fantasy and science fiction, I checked out an anthology from the local library which happened to contain the story “Rust” (possibly the Asimov/Greenberg anthology which Scott mentioned above). Although I long ago forgot the title of both story and compilation, the story itself has haunted me down the years. I have tried many times to track it down through Internet searches by typing in various key words based on vague recollection, all to no avail. A couple days ago I ran another search just for the heck of it and by sheer chance happened to pick a lucky combination of words (“science fiction”, “short story”, “robot”, “garden”, “statue”) which ultimately landed me on this page. You can’t imagine how excited I am finally to have discovered the identity of this story and its author. I am very grateful to you, Jamie, and I can’t wait to locate a copy of “Rust” and read it again for the first time in decades!

    1. Tony, “Rust” is a wonderful story. I believe it is in that first Asimov/Greenberg anthology for 1939. One of the better robot stories I’ve ever encountered. I’m glad my post come up on your search! :-)

  6. So am I! I subscribed to your blog, so I’ll keep up to date on your future story reviews!

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